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Author Voice vs. Character Voice*


Photo by Ernest Duffoo
Voice is one of the most sited components of writing a great story. Publishers/agents are looking for a strong voice, a fresh voice, a clear voice, etc. Unfortunately, it's also one of the things that we as writers struggle with and stress about the most.
I think the first thing that confused me early on was the difference between author voice and character voice. At first, I thought they were the same thing. They're not.
Author voice "encompasses word choice, rhythm, pacing, style, tone and structure." (source)
Character voice also affects word choice, rhythm, and pacing. But in character voice those things are influenced by the character's background, history, age, education, regional location, time period, etc.
Crystal clear, right? *snort*
Okay, maybe this will help, because it definitely helped me. I attended a workshop once where the author explained author voice by saying that you could pick up any one of her books no matter what the subject/character/plot and know that she wrote it.  
For instance, I've been reading Richelle Mead's Succubus Blues.  I'm a huge fan of her YA Vampire Academy books (in fact, I all about did a dance when Spirit Bound arrived on my doorstep this week), but this was the first time I was reading any of her adult books.  The story and characters are completely different, but the quirky sense of humor and style are still there.  I could tell they were both written by the same author, so I'm "hearing" her author voice.
And you have one, too!  We all do.  You just have to make sure it gets onto the page.
My author voice is snarky and casual. My style matches that--I use deep POV, like using the occasional incomplete sentences for impact, and have a lot of dialogue.  My books will never be filled with lyrical prose and elegant descriptions.  And though I tackle heavy topics at times in my stories, humor will always be present.  
Why? Because that's who I am. I don't take life very seriously. Sarcasm is my favorite pastime and self-depracation is a way of life for me. I can't escape my voice.
So there's good news in that! Voice just is. (Read your own blog, you'll probably see your voice shining through.) We can hone it and analyze it and strengthen it but our author voice is already there. It's who we are. 
The only thing that gets in the way is when we try to imitate some other author's voice. "I want to write books just like..." It's good to study other people's writings and pick out what you enjoy about it, but be careful not to let what you "think" your voice should be overtake what it actually is.  You can never be such and such author, you can only be you.
So, if author voice is just waiting there to be discovered, what we probably need to worry about more is making sure we have an accurate character voice for each of our players. 
To do this, we need to analyze our characters, get into their head, know their history. As one of my handy dandy critiquers recently pointed out about one of my characters: she's from the south, she wouldn't say "you guys", she would say "y'all". Of course, I know this (being southern and a over-user of y'all) but I lost her voice for a minute trying to sound more proper. These are the small nuances we have to watch out for. If our characters don't sound believable, we'll lose the reader.
Well, that's my take on the whole thing, but I'd like to hear your opinions.
How would your describe your author voice?  Do you struggle to nail it down or is it one of those things that comes naturally?  Which authors voices do you totally envy?
*This is a revamped version of a post from Sept. 2009.  I decided to rerun it since over the past year "author voice" is the most popular search keyword according to my Google Analytics, so apparently a lot of people have questions about this topic.  Hope you find it helpful!*
**Today's Theme Song**
"Voices Carry" - Til Tuesday
(player in sidebar--go ahead, take a listen)


Reader Comments (32)

K, so I completely missed the Blogfest because I was galavanting all over Savannah, GA on a last minute, two day getaway! I'm gearing up to read a bunch of the entries, but wanted to say that this was really helpful. My voice (like yours) definitely follows the humor route and enjoys the sarcastic side of life :)

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBeth

I struggle with this a bit. See, when I read an author with a strong voice, my voice drifts toward their style. It's not intentional, it simply ~is~.

I notice what they do right, what they do wrong, and I pick and choose those things that I like and plop em down into my own writing.

I've also found over the years that my voice has become less quirky. I can still be silly, and I can still write fun stories, but I told my brother that I can feel the muse's voice deepening as it matures.

Anyway. Good thoughts.

- Eric

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric W. Trant

My author voice is subdued and more or less straightforward. My characters have different voices, of course, ranging from authoritative to profane to overly enthusiastic. I didn't have too much trouble maintaining a consistent authorial voice, but whether I made the right choice with it...well, that's another question.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravener

I'm still working at improving the distinction between author and character voice. Some voices I totally envy include Rick Riordan, William Steig, Cornelia Funke, Brandon Mull, and Patricia Polacco.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShannon O'Donnell

I loved this blog, especially when you said that your books will never be filled with lyrical prose and elegant descriptions.

I fill the same way. I often ask people if they'd never met me and only read my blog what kind of person would you think I am.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatti

Thanks for this post! This is something that I've been very anxious about. Mostly because I love reading books that have a very strong, distinct voice--snarky, humorous, urban. I don't have that voice myself, however. I'm very midwestern in personality--I tend to be practical and straight-forward, with just a touch of the romantic. So my voice comes off that way. I get nervous that I'm not distinct enough.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterj.leigh.bailey

What a great post. I would say that we have similar author voices - like you, I write punchy snippets that will never win a literary award. Sometimes humorous, often sarcastic. One of my favourite protagonists has this same voice, only amplified - she gets away with a lot more than I would ;-)

I still struggle with defining voice, but there is a book that really nailed Character Voice for me - Where the Truth Lies, by Rupert Holmes. I resisted reading it for a long time and am so glad I finally did. It was excellent and the character voice is brilliant.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDawn

I don't think you can "learn" voice; it has to become organic. It improves the more you write. I find that when the words flow, that's my voice. When I struggle to find the right words--then I'm stepping out of myself and trying to 'write like a writer'.

And I'm glad you divided author from character. They ARE two different cans of worms.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Odell

I think I have an 'author's voice' in my fiction and I'm just now finding out how to get that out for blogging too. As far as character voice, some of my character's have more than others, sad to say. I know that there are a few I need to work on.

Loved the post.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary McDonald

My author voice is a bit terse. Lots of black humor. Short sentences but also a few rambling, run-on sentences that (I like to think anyway) show confusion and complexity in issues.

Great post! I think we could all use a reminder of the difference sometimes.

I tend toward a more lyrical style, but since I usually write in 1st person, I have to be sure my writing reflects the way the character thinks and speaks.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTere Kirkland

I've mostly found my voice, but in my first-person works, it becomes a balance between the character's voice and my voice. In places, particularly my first-person, present-tense WIP, the character takes over. But I've noticed that fundamentally, there's still something in the background that is entirely me.

I was lucky to have an author at a conference point out my particular voice, and a few years later, it turns out that she was right. I tend toward a fairy-tale sort of voice.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMoira Young

I think I'm still working on both. I tend to be a little sarcastic --trying to bring the humor out in things.
Great post!

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristine Danek

I actually think my biggest issue is narrator voice. My narrator is me but sometimes I hear people asking what gender my narrator is or age... it's always me though.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz H. Allen

I'm still developing my author voice. For me, character voice is easier because I can sit quietly and imagine listening to my character say the words aloud (whether dialogue or narration) to test whether it "sounds" right.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGenie of the Shell

Roni,I'm struggling with this topic as well, and decided to start putting together a blog post to help me sort it out in my mind.

Last night I recieved a critique on a few pages of my ms, and I really felt that what was gained through making it more spare, ended up compromising the voice. I've been asked for a partial, but only after I've cut 20,000 words from the ms. I'm really struggling with what to cut. I want to distill it down, but not lose the voice in the process.

Great post!

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne Brothwell

Great post and some really valid points. It can be really had to see the difference between the two (especially if written in first person) but I think it is even hard for the writer to define their own voice. It's like accents, the speaker doesn't notice they have one but everyone else does.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWritersBlockNZ

I tend to be heavy on the dialogue, as well. And I'm most definitely not funny. I just don't have it in me. I tend to be really descriptive and sometimes toe the line of literary, especially with my current WIP. As much as I admire Lauren Willig and Sophie Kinsella, I'll never sound like either. Oh well. :)

Good, thought provoking post!

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKM

Voice isn't as difficult a thing for me anymore. I had a lot of trouble when I first started out (years ago), afraid all the characters sounded the same. But eventually it just became part of the process, developing voices different from mine for these people I've created out of nothing (or something, who knows).

My voice is really conversational and, I think, welcoming. Everyone's invited to take part in the story or entry or whatever. I'm also sarcastic and a little negative at times but over everything, I think the friendly and conversational aspect of my real personality comes through as my author's voice. Super funsies.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterE. Elle

Great post. I'm glad to decided to revisit this topic. Can be tricky, but I think our author voice evolves, just as our writing evolves through growth, reflection and our reading etc...Thanks for the post.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterL'Aussie

GREAT post! I'm kinda choppy and serious and dryly sarcastic and I hope I nailed it with this latest one! fingers crossed !

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristina Lee

Firstly...Richelle Mead's new book is out?! Thank you SO much for mentioning that, I've been looking for it forever! Finally, I can go to the bookstore and figure out what happens....

Second, I agree with what you have here. Of course the author and character should be recognizable, but in different ways-the author because they're so amazing and talented, and the character because they're funny/brave etc.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOddyoddyo13

My author's voice is formal, with a trace of humor. Someone recently described it as "hypnotic British woman narrator." I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not?

My two main characters have completely opposite voices. My hero is very serious, very dry. My heroine sounds more like a sweet, shy, lovesick twenty-something... because she is. It's almost like reading two different stories in one book. At least, I hope so, because that's what I'm going for.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristine H

First of all--the picture--I think I will have nightmares tonight about people who are all mouth. Hahaha!

My problem is my author voice tends to be wordy or to double-say something. Which means I repeat. It's natural for me. That's how I roll. However, it is totally wrong in writing. I also religiously speak the language of sarcasm. It is hard for me to make sure that only one of my characters is sarcastic, because not everyone can be snarky. Great Post. I love it. (Wow, see what I mean about repeating myself?)

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWrite Chick


Being new to your blog and everything associated, I'm intrigued!
Re present post:
Can say that I've been accused of having a superior British style narrative (whatever that means)yet congratulated on presenting well-rounded characters with individual voices.

So I guess, barring "superior British narrative tone I'm doing something right . . .

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFrancine

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